When Patti Russell of Woodbridge High School turned 18 earlier this softball season, Coach Susan Hall's gift to her star pitcher was a cream puff.
Russell still laughs when reminded of the prank. She knew what it meant.
"I think she looks like a cream puff out there," Hall said. "She's all tan and her makeup is all perfect and she's got that bleached blonde hair and she gets her nails done."
But when you've had a great time at your senior prom and pitched your first perfect game in the same week, it's easy to take a little ribbing. Especially when your team enters tonight's Southern Section 3-A championship game against Crescenta Valley at Mayfair Park as the No. 1 seed.
Besides, Russell knew the prank was intended as a sign of affection and respect.
For a typical afternoon practice, her attire is an interesting amalgam of dedicated athlete and president of the varsity pep squad.
She is likely to top off a pair of dirty cleats with an Italian designer watch and a pair of pearl and sapphire earrings. Her perfectly manicured fuchsia nails would make a leisurely society matron proud.
That is, except for the stubby ones on the index and middle fingers of her left hand. They were artificially constructed to $12 perfection for prom night and unsentimentally discarded the next day, so as not to interfere with her regular Sunday pitching date with her father.
"These fingernails are real," she said. "These pitching fingers I had put on for the prom. But I wouldn't even have tried (to throw with the acrylic nails on) because I need those two fingers."
Hey, you've got to draw the line on glamour somewhere.
But nobody who has watched the left-hander compile a 10-1 record, an 0.39 earned-run average and 77 strikeouts this season would seriously suggest that she is a cream puff in the high-strung, wimpy sense of the term. Certainly not the softball program at Oregon State University, which signed both her and teammate Sandra Schoonover to full scholarships.
For example, the tan above Russell's left knee is interrupted by a purple bruise the size of a grapefruit--the result of a line drive that hit her in Tuesday's game against Arcadia. It didn't stop her from making the out.
Her only defeat of the season came in a nonleague tournament game against La Mirada, which the Warriors lost, 4-3, in nine innings. In two years of coaching the Warriors, Hall said she has never seen Russell get rattled.
Russell's persona on the mound is a far cry from the one she displays on the sidelines of football games as a cheerleader. It's a matter of two totally different kinds of spirit.
On the field, she's fierce. She has gritted her teeth together so hard during thousands of deliveries that one bottom tooth points inward.
Said Hall: "The thing I like best about her is when we're in an intense game and she really gets into it.
"It's really funny. When the catcher throws the ball back to her, she grabs it out of the air, spins around and stomps back to the mound. Then she makes a mean face, takes one aggressive step and fires it."
Russell's fastball may not be a speed-of-sounder such as Michelle Granger's of Valencia, but it naturally rides upward and inward on right-handed batters. It is well-supported by a repertoire of four other effective pitches--drop, rise, curve and changeup--developed during six years of private pitching lessons with Ron LeFebvre in Fullerton.
She has devoted herself to softball year-round as a member of three teams--winter and summer all-star teams and the Warriors. She pitches or practices six days a week, 50 weeks a year, only taking off for an annual vacation to Hawaii to develop that tan. Her arm earns its vacations on the beach with an estimated 300 pitches a week--15,000 a year.
She says her position at Woodbridge (23-3) is made easier by the knowledge that she has a fine defense behind her.
"I only struck out four people in the perfect game (in Friday's quarterfinals) against Arcadia," Russell said. "The defense did the rest. They put them all out.
"If I get hit, I don't have to worry about it. They dive for the ball and everything."
On the other hand, they don't have eight flawless nails and a cream-puff reputation to protect.
In other Southern Section softball championships play tonight at Mayfair Park, El Toro will play Arroyo at 6 for the 2-A title.
On Saturday, top-seeded Fountain Valley will play St. Joseph in the 4-A championship at 8 p.m.
The Small Schools final will start at 3:30 p.m. and 1-A divisional finals will begin at 6 p.m.